Want to learn about Lexington? Become an ambassador

Did you know that both France and Spain once claimed to own Kentucky?

That the Marquis de Lafayette’s winemaker planted America’s first commercial vineyard here in 1798?

That a Lexington man invented the ripcord parachute pack?

And that Kentucky’s horse-to-people ratio is 1-to-12?

Do you know how to help someone visit a horse farm, see a distillery or find a good place to eat or hike?

I know these things because I am now a Certified Tourism Ambassador.

I’m sure you’re impressed.

I was one of 10 people who gathered at the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau last Saturday morning for a four-hour class. We already had read a thick workbook and completed exercises on local geography and visitor problem-solving.

After we passed a test, we joined 860 others from 30 previous classes who have become Certified Tourism Ambassadors since early last year. We even get a badge. OK, so it’s really a lapel pin.

The bureau hopes to train at least 1,500 ambassadors by next fall, when Lexington will host its biggest tourism event ever, the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Candidates for the training include hotel and restaurant workers, cab drivers, police officers, LexCall and airport staff members, Realtors and people who want to be volunteers at the Games. But anyone can do it.

In addition to Lexington, classes have been held in Frankfort, Richmond, Lawrenceburg, Berea and Nicholasville.

The idea behind the program is that the best way to build a tourism economy is to make sure each visitor has a great experience. That will make those visitors more likely to tell others good things about a city and come back again.

Tourism is big business in Central Kentucky, and not just because of the Games. The bureau claims tourism has a $2 billion economic impact in the region, thanks largely to horses, history and bourbon. Lexington alone has 2.5 million overnight visitors each year — an average of 6,900 a day.

“That’s almost 7,000 opportunities we have each day to make a good impression,” said Julie Schickel, who runs the training program.

My class was a diverse group that included a hotel supervisor, business people and several retirees who like to volunteer.

Wickliffe “Wickie” Hardwick, a retiree who wants to volunteer during the Games, decided to take the class because “we were told that this was a great place to start.”

Hardwick is a Winchester native who has lived here for most of her life. Still, she learned a lot from the training workbook, which is a great, concise briefing on Central Kentucky history, culture and attractions.

“There were so many details I didn’t know; it’s been fun going through all of this,” said Susan Morris, a retired Chicago native who has lived in Lexington for 36 years.

Almost everyone in my class was either a Central Kentucky native or had lived here a long time. We enjoyed sharing local trivia, restaurant recommendations and tips for places to go and things to do.

“I learned a lot from hearing people talk about their favorite places,” said Brenda Kirkpatrick, who at 19 was the youngest class member. She is a front office supervisor at the Hilton Suites at Lexington Green.

Kirkpatrick, who was born and raised in the Nonesuch community of Woodford County, said childhood vacations often involved traveling around Kentucky. After taking the ambassador class, she said, “I think I’m going to go do it all again.”

For more information

To learn more about Certified Tourism Ambassador training, contact Julie Schickel at the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau, (859) 244-7717 or jschickel@visitlex.com

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